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The Church And Mental Illness

December 30, 2016 Frontpage No Comments

By JAMES K. FITZPATRICK

I had a curious reaction when reading the September 26 article in The Washington Post entitled, “My pastor told me it was a sin not to feel joy. Here’s what happens when churches ignore mental illness.” I went back and forth between agreeing with the author and saying to myself, “But it’s not that simple.” The author is Charlotte Donlon, a married woman and mother of two who lives in Alabama and is working on her master’s degree in fine arts.
Donlon begins by calling our attention to a time in her life when she went through “manic episodes” when she was convinced “there was a conspiracy” against her. When she went to her pastor (she does not give us his name or the name of his church, or whether it is a Catholic or Protestant parish), his response was to suggest that they pray together: “He bowed his head and started mumbling a prayer that made no sense to me,” a prayer that floated “off like bubbles blown by a young child.” Donlon tells us she “got up, walked to my car and drove away.”
Donlon’s “mania” eventually subsided, but she became exasperated one day not long afterward when her pastor began a sermon on “joy,” based on John 16:16-24. This is the passage where Jesus assures His followers that their “distress will be turned to joy,” just as a “woman in childbirth feels distress, because her time has come; but when she has borne her child, she does not remember the distress any longer.” Donlon “braced” herself for disappointment when the sermon began, fearing the preacher would not “take this opportunity to discuss things such as depression and anxiety in the Christian life.”
Her fears were well-founded. She writes, “Although much of what he said was good and biblical, he didn’t mention mental illness. Instead, he said that if you aren’t experiencing joy, you should examine your life and repent of any sin that might be blocking it.”
Donlon was troubled that a significant number of the congregation listening to the sermon would be individuals who “experience some form of mental illness” and who would “feel shame and guilt” because of the preacher’s words.
She tells us she glanced at her 13-year-old daughter who is suffering “from depression and anxiety” and wondered if she might be one of them.
Donlon’s point is well-taken. There are well-meaning preachers who give the impression that mental problems are something an individual can escape solely through prayer and meditation upon the “good news” of the Gospels and God’s love for us. But often that is not enough. Psychological problems can be real. There are times when depression cannot be ended by listening to cheery words about looking “on the bright side of life,” by “accentuating the positive,” or “putting your faith in the Lord.”
Good people can find themselves in need of psychiatric care. We don’t know why some do, while others remain happy and stable. The recent brouhaha over Donald Trump’s comments about post-traumatic stress syndrome is a case in point. Trump’s critics jumped on him for using the term “not strong” to describe members of the military who develop this psychological problem. But Trump’s point was sound, even if awkwardly expressed. Trump was speaking to a veterans group that day; they understood what he meant. There were no objections from the members of the audience. They knew he was a layman not using the clinical language used by health-care professionals.
Why, for example, in a platoon of 20 soldiers who experience the same conditions while deployed, might one or two develop PTSD, when the others do not? These soldiers may have been among the most courageous in the platoon while in combat. But something caused them to develop psychological problems, when the others did not. We cannot just tell them to “buck up” and “be a man.” Something more is needed, as in the cases of Charlotte Donlon and her daughter.
Donlon calls upon pastors to keep in mind the studies that show one in 25 adults in the United States will experience “serious mental illness such as schizophrenia, major depression, or bipolar disorder.” She cites studies that indicate that nearly half of the pastors in the United States “never speak to their church in sermons about mental illness,” adding, “I’ve been a Christian for 21 years. None of my pastors have ever mentioned mental illness in a substantive way. I’ve never heard a pastor discuss the role the church should play in caring for those with mental illness. During times that I was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a pastor has never reached out to me.” Her hope is that the “church can be a conduit of God’s goodness to those who are sick and scared.”
I have no way or knowing how typical Donlon’s experience is. And I don’t know if it is a fair criticism of modern Catholic priests to charge that they routinely resort to pious happy talk when dealing with someone as troubled as Donlon. But I think we can safely say that it would be a good thing if her words inspire members of the Catholic clergy to be more attentive to the needs of their parishioners beset with psychological issues.
Then when did I find myself at times saying to myself, “It’s not that simple,” while reading Donlon’s article? I may be inferring what Donlon did not imply, but there were times when she seemed to discount the effectiveness of prayer for those beset with psychological issues.
The pastor who invited her to pray with him may have come across as patronizing, but that need not be the case. Prayer and the sacraments are effective tools at troubled times in our lives. When people talk of “finding Jesus,” of “seeing the light,” of “being born again,” they are describing a transformation as profound as the change that occurs under a psychologist’s care. Often this transformation takes place without the involvement of psychologists and psychiatrists. In other cases, the psychologists and psychiatrists are necessary.
The bottom line: Jesus saves, sometimes in collaboration with professionals in the field of mental health, whose mission is the same as everyone else’s: to remake all things in Christ.

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